Canzone napoletana (pronounced [kanˈtsoːne napoleˈtaːna]), sometimes referred to as Neapolitan song (Neapolitan: canzona napulitana [kanˈdzoːnə napuliˈtɑːnə]), is a generic term for a traditional form of music sung in the Neapolitan language, ordinarily for the male voice singing solo, although well represented by female soloists as well, and expressed in familiar genres such as the love song and serenade. Many of the songs are about the nostalgic longing for Naples as it once was. The genre consists of a large body of composed popular music—such songs as "’O sole mio"; "Torna a Surriento"; "Funiculì, Funiculà"; "Santa Lucia" and others.
The Neapolitan song became a formal institution in the 1830s due to an annual song-writing competition for the Festival of Piedigrotta, dedicated to the Madonna of Piedigrotta, a well-known church in the Mergellina area of Naples. The winner of the first festival was a song entitled Te voglio bene assaie; it is traditionally attributed to the prominent opera composer Gaetano Donizetti, although an article published in 1984 by Marcello Sorce Keller shows there is no historical evidence in support of the attribution. The festival ran regularly until 1950, when it was abandoned. A subsequent Festival of Neapolitan Song on Italian state radio enjoyed some success in the 1950s but was eventually abandoned as well.
The period since 1950 has produced such songs as Malafemmena by Totò, Maruzzella by Renato Carosone, Indifferentemente by Mario Trevi and Carmela by Sergio Bruni. Although separated by some decades from the earlier classics of this genre, they have now become Neapolitan "classics" in their own right.
Many of the Neapolitan songs are world-famous because they were taken abroad by emigrants from Naples and southern Italy roughly between 1880 and 1920.The music also was popularized abroad by performers such as Enrico Caruso, who took to singing the popular music of his native city as encores at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the early 1900s. Caruso also recorded many of these songs, which subsequently became part of the standard repertoire for operatic tenors, and which were performed and recorded by such notable singers as Beniamino Gigli, Francesco Albanese, Franco Corelli, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Tito Schipa. The Three Tenors also performed popular songs from Naples. Plácido Domingo recorded a full CD Italia ti amo of traditional and some more modern Neapolitan and Italian songs. Luciano Pavarotti recorded three albums of Neapolitan and Italian songs: The Best: Disc 2, (2005), Pavarotti Songbook, (1991), and Romantica, (2002). Mario Lanza recorded an acclaimed selection of 12 Neapolitan songs on his 1959 album, Mario! Lanza At His Best. Opera/pop crossover tenor, Sergio Franchi recorded his very popular Billboard Top 25 RCA debut album, Romantic Italian Songs in 1962, and continued to record Neapolitan songs on most of his albums throughout his career. Andrea Bocelli recorded an album in 2009 dedicated to the style, entitled Incanto.
The most important native Neapolitan performers of Neapolitan songs in the last few decades include Roberto Murolo, Bruno Venturini, Mario Trevi, Mario Abbate, Mario Merola, Giulietta Sacco, Franco Ricci, Sergio Bruni, Renato Carosone, and Mario Maglione. Murolo is known not only as a singer and guitarist, but also as a composer, scholar and collector of the music; his collection of twelve LPs, released in the 1960s, is an annotated compendium of Neapolitan song dating back to the twelfth century. Representatives of different veins, but nevertheless leading the continuing tradition of song in Neapolitan, are the jazz-rock singer-songwriter Pino Daniele and the folkloric group Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare.
An important factor in defining what makes a Neapolitan song is the matter of language. All these songs are written and performed in the Neapolitan language. Although the music is sung by many non-Neapolitan singers, it is difficult to sing correctly without knowledge of the Neapolitan dialect, which is crucial in obtaining the correct inflection. The matter of dialect has not prevented a few non-Neapolitans from writing dialect versions of Neapolitan songs. The most famous example of this is ’A vucchella by Gabriele D'Annunzio.
Marcello Sorce Keller, “Continuing Opera with Other Means: Opera, Neapolitan Song, and Popular Music among Italian Immigrants Overseas”, Forum Italicum, Vol. XLIX(2015), No 3, 1- 20.